Meaningful Business (MB:) Please tell us a bit about your background.
Aaron Cheng (AC:) I’m a California native! Private equity and banking in a prior life. I love travelling and sports.
MB: What led you to join PowerGen Renewable Energy?
AC: I joined five and a half years ago, when we were about 20 team members. I’m very grateful to be working with 3 terrific co-founders who represent the grit, humility, and team spirit that make PowerGen a special place.
MB: What are the main problems you are trying to solve?
AC: We are all very passionate about solving two very big challenges: one, the energy access problem that has 600+ million people without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); and two, the transition to a cleaner, smarter, and more customer-centric energy system.
MB: What is your biggest challenge right now?
AC: Building efficient institutions and streamlining a high-friction sector, due to the fragmented programmes across donors and governments. When looking at similar, parallel sectors that have been successful on a scaled basis – e.g. residential solar in the US, epidemic responses in SSA – the sectors have several qualities that drive success. These are: 1) clear sector coordination (e.g. all efforts funneled through the World Health Organisation), and 2) very simple and clear institutions that allow private companies to execute efficiently (e.g. investment tax credit in US solar).
Right now, the transaction costs and friction are incredibly high for small projects, due to every donor and every government working on different programmes, pilots, designs, funding structures, reporting requirements, etc. As a result, a significant amount of funding has gone to pay consultants, instead of funding actual projects, and our “soft” costs to doing an actual project are very high.
MB: What is your vision for the future of your business?
AC: To become the leading new-generation energy company that solves today’s challenges with clean energy and a stellar customer experience.
MB: What is your advice to other leaders who want to combine profit and purpose?
AC: The journey is incredibly difficult but fulfilling, and people matter above all else. Find great humans who share the passion in the journey and investors with aligned values and visions to support you.
MB – What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
AC – Not always easy to remember in the moment, but every challenge is an opportunity! Life’s best lessons are learned at the worst times.
MB – Who inspires you?
AC – Many years later, and still my mother! Always amazed by her selfless heart, her open-mind, and her work ethic to progress her family and professional track, all while overcoming challenges as a limited English-speaking immigrant.
MB – How do you define success?
AC – I’m not an expert… but more and more I think success is internal first and foremost, even if society often sets external definitions of success through awards, rankings, etc. It’s based on your own goals and your own journey. I admire those who are continuously bettering both themselves and others, and also those who carry a positive, forward-looking mindset that appreciates the journey.
MB – What is something you wish you were better at?
AC – Learning to lead from afar as we grow larger and spread across more countries. It’s a different stage and paradigm from when we were smaller and in more of “survival” mode, and our evolution requires adjusting my style, habits, and headspace. I have a long list of things though… also want to get better at finding a balance with inner calm, meditation, etc, and I have a few languages on there too!
MB – What is the one book everyone should read?
AC – “Non-violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. Excellent and eye-opening on how the ways we express ourselves, listen to others, label actions, and address issues is broken.
MB – What do you do to relax?
AC – Exercise, play sports, and spend time with friends and family.
Discover the other MB100 leaders recognised for their work combining profit and purpose to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2020, here.